The Anning family

Between 1811 and 1830, the Anning family of Lyme Regis, Dorset found and recovered several strange, vaguely dolphin-like skeletons from the Liassic limestones and shales that form the local seacliffs of this part of southern England. Richard Anning (1766-1810), the father of the family, was a carpenter and cabinet maker by trade, but was often out of work. His wife Mary, called Molly by the family, tried to supplement their precarious income by collecting and selling fossils to the growing numbers of genteel tourists. In the late eighteenth century, changing agricultural practices and enclosures of land meant that many of the peasants of rural England were impoverished.

People such as Jane Austen and her social circle increasingly frequented picturesque fishing villages such as Lyme, to admire the seascapes, the quaint cottages and their inhabitants, whose local accents were barely understandable. At the time it was becoming fashionable to collect natural curiosities to adorn glass cabinets in the reception rooms of spacious middle-class homes. The specimens could always be brought out as aids to polite conversation. Typical of their time were the three Philpot sisters, who first visited Lyme in 1806 and became avid samplers and collectors of natural objects. Somehow, the Philpot ladies met the 7-year-old Mary Anning junior and befriended her. Over the following years they bought numerous specimens from Mary and her family. Eventually, the Philpot sisters' magnificent collection of fossils was donated to Oxford University Museum.

But there were also other collectors who took a more serious financial or academic interest in unusual specimens. One of these collectors, James Johnston, wrote in 1810 to a friend that 'there is a person at Lyme who collects for sale by the name of Anning, a cabinet maker and I believe as men are, may be depended upon, I would advise you calling upon him.' By comparison, he also remarked that nearby at Charmouth there was 'a confounded rogue of the name of Lock to call upon ... give him a Grog or a Pint, this will buy him to your interest and all the crocodiles he may meet with will almost assuredly be offered to you first, you must then agree with him for he is poor and will sell within one hour after the article is found.'

The Annings probably had as many as 10 children, but such was infant mortality in those days for poor families that only two of them survived to maturity, a boy called Joseph (1796-1849), who became an upholsterer, and a girl, Mary. Disaster again struck the Anning family late in 1810 when Richard died from the combined effects of consumption (tuberculosis), an all too common disease in those days, and a serious fall. He left his family in serious debt to the tune of £120, with the result that they were dependent on parish relief until 1816. Nevertheless, in 1811 Joseph found the spectacular skull of a fossil 'seadragon' and the following year his sister Mary, just 12 years old, found the rest of the skeleton. According to a report in a local newspaper, it was dug out of the rock by workmen employed by the family in November 1812.

Mary Anning junior, 1799-1847, most famous member of the Dorset family who collected and sold fossils to supplement their income. A number of the important fossils found by Mary and her family in the Jurassic strata forming the seacliffs around Lyme Regis in Dorset are to be seen in major national collections, such as those of the Natural History Museum in London.

The specimen was sold for £23 to the lord of the local manor, Henry Henley, who was a keen fossil collector. He sold it on to William Bullock, a showman, who exhibited the petrified curiosity in his private London Museum of Natural History. Natural history was fashionable and people were prepared to pay to go and see the newly discovered wonders of the natural world. The fossil was illustrated and described in 1814 by Sir Everard Home, whose poet sister Mary was married to John Hunter. Some of Mary Hunter's verses were

An 1825 lithograph of a young woman, perhaps Mary Anning junior, out 'fossicking' with a hammer amongst the rocks by the Cobb in Lyme Regis, Dorset.

set to music by Haydn when he visited London and was befriended by the Hunters.

Home noticed some crocodile-like features in the jaw, but concluded that its affinities lay with the fish. When Bullock's collection was sold to the British Museum in 1819, the specimen was priced at £47 $d, a great deal of money in those days. The specimen now has pride of place in the Natural History Museum in London.

More and better finds of 'saurians' were made; one particularly fine ichthyosaur was sold in 1819 for £100 and the fame of the Annings spread among scholars and collectors. Mary probably had little or no schooling and yet, of necessity, she had learned to read and write and was well able to communicate news of finds to those who might be interested. Lyme was still very much off the beaten track and a long way from London by horseback or carriage. Most of her clients were well-educated gentlemen and her surviving letters are testimony to her abilities, which went far beyond finding specimens: she corresponded and conversed over matters of scientific detail.

The most spectacular and interesting specimens went to 'Oxbridge' academics such as Adam Sedgwick and William Buckland, who used them to develop their ideas about life in the geological past. It is a matter of record that many scientists, such as De la Beche, Buckland, Louis Agassiz and even the King of Saxony, visited Mary's small shop to see her latest specimens and talk of fossils. Many of them remarked on her knowledge of anatomy, especially of the marine reptiles, and she was not afraid to dispute the finer details of interpretation, even with the likes of Professor Buckland.

One of her best finds was a complete 3-m-long plesiosaur found in 1823. Henry De la Beche and the Reverend William Conybeare had previously realised that certain bones, which had been thought of as belonging to an ichthyosaur,

Sir Henry Thomas De la Beche, 1796-1855, began his career in the army (1810-15), became a geologist in the Trigonometrical Survey (from 1832), was the first director of the British Geological Survey (from 1835), president of the Geological Society of London (1847) and was knighted in 1848.

were in fact those of a quite different reptile. They called this putative creature Plesiosaurus (Greek for 'near lizard'), but its recognition was disputed by other scholars and so De la Beche and Conybeare were greatly pleased when Mary proved them right by finding this complete specimen.

The following year, 1824, Conybeare described their new fossil and concluded correctly that it was a marine reptile that swam slowly, using its flippers, a bit like a turtle. He considered that its long, flexible neck compensated for its small head and weak jaws by being able to bend quickly and snap up passing prey. He also took the stance of so many churchmen of the time, who were enthused by natural science. In these pre-Darwinian days, Conybeare regarded the extreme deviation of the plesiosaur body from the reptilian norm as a perfect and purposeful example of design by the Creator. It exemplified the 'exquisite orderliness and diversity of divine creation'. This stance had the benefit of allowing Conybeare and his fellow clergymen to pursue their interests with a clear conscience, in the knowledge that they were investigating and illustrating the works of God for the greater edification of mankind.

Mary Anning's social status and sex prevented her from entering this developing world of nineteenth-century science that was rapidly becoming professionalised and was dominated by university-educated, middle-class men. Mary never married and there is much speculation of a tragic romance with a gentleman (subject of Sheila Cole's 1993 novel The Dragon in the Cliff and not unrelated to the plot of John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman) but no real evidence.

She found at least three complete ichthyosaurs (1818, 1821 and 1830); two plesiosaurs (1823 and 1830); a cephalopod Belemnosepia, with its fossilised ink sac preserved; the first British pterodactyl Dimorphodon (1828); the cartilagenous fossil fish Squaloraja (1828); and quantities of other invertebrate shells. Mary Anning was possibly the first person to recognise the phosphatised fossil fish and reptile faeces that are not uncommon in the Lias shales. How much of her observation found its way, unacknowledged, into the scientific books and papers that Buckland and others wrote is a matter of argument, but she certainly felt that her knowledge had been used.

Until recently, very few of her fossil finds, specimens of which are in museum collections, have been recognised. It is only now, when museum curators are more interested in the history and provenance of their specimens, that her discoveries are being properly acknowledged. Of the five most important institutions to purchase her specimens, only Oxford University Museum has a direct record of a specimen originating from her, and that is a single coprolite. Over the last few years, searches of Mary's correspondence have revealed that Cambridge University's Sedgwick Museum has several of her prize ichthyosaur specimens.

Her latter years were ones of sad decline. There was less interest in fossils and the monsters of the abyss had lost their fascination for the while and Mary made no further spectacular finds, so her income fell. She suffered from breast cancer and had to give up the hard life of 'fossicking' out on the beach. Fortunately, her gentlemen had not entirely forgotten how much they owed to her industry and expertise. She became a worthy cause and at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1835, £200 was raised by private subscription. Buckland persuaded the Prime Minister Lord Melbourne to add £300 in 1838 and together these sums bought Mary an annuity of £25. She died in 1847 at the age of 48.

The most famous lines that may refer to her are those of the tongue-twister:

She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore,

The shells she sells are sea-shells, I'm sure

For if she sells sea-shells on the sea-shore,

Then I'm sure she sells sea-shore shells.

Within just a few decades of the early nineteenth century, the Oolites and Lias strata were transformed from being merely the source of useful stone and mineral materials into the Jurassic System of strata that represents the Jurassic Period of Earth Time, now known to extend for some 54.1 million years from 199.6-145.5 million years ago. Fossils from these strata revealed an extraordinary ancient world occupied by a mixture of some familiar-looking animals such as small mammals and birds, but also by creatures more curious and bizarre than previously dreamt of.

The mythical dragons of mediaeval times were eclipsed by extinct but very real monsters that had lived on land and in the seas. But a full understanding of their remarkable diversity and true appearance had to await the discovery of much better-preserved specimens than were available to Richard Owen. It was only when dinosaur fossils were recovered from strata representing land environments of Jurassic times, especially those that are so well exposed in the arid badlands of the midwest of the North American continent, that the true image of the 'terrible saurians' emerged. Meanwhile, Richard Owen made a brave attempt at reconstructing the dinosaurs and their lost world with the help of a little-known but entrepreneurial artist by the name of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins.

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, 1807-89, London sculptor and illustrator, who created, with Richard Owen, the first life-size reconstructions of dinosaurs and other extinct animals and plants for the park surrounding the relocated Crystal Palace when it reopened at Sydenham in south London in 1854.

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